I suspected that "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" had to be a pretty good story to not only get Tommy Lee Jones to work behind the camera as a director for the first time, but also to get him to once again play a cowboy taking the corpse of his friend home. What this 2006 film has in common with "Lonesome Dove" is not the transportation of a dead friend to his rightful final resting place, but rather the way the act defines both the man and the friendship. The important difference is that this time the character Jones plays takes another living soul along on the journey south.
Jones plays Pete Perkins, who runs a small cattle ranch and has hired Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo), an illegal immigrant from Mexico, to work with him. When Melquiades is killed and the local sheriff (Dwight Yoakam) refuses to do anything about it, Pete takes care of matters himself. He finds out that a young Border Patrol agent, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), killed Melquiades, Pete captures him. Norton had buried Melquiades to hide the crime and then the body was buried a second time. Now Pete makes Norton did up the body of the man he killed, and then they head off on horses to Mexico so that Pete's friend can be returned to his family and buried in the town of Jimenez south of the Border.
Essentially, then, you have three burials and a trip as the four key sections of the film. "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is not a suspense film, where we wonder if Pete is going to be able to carry off his plans. There are obstacles, but his success is never in doubt. Pete is very much from the worldly school where a man does what a man has to do, and despite what the situation might force him to do we never forget that the corpse is the body of his friend. Pursuing Pete and his captive is problematic since what Norton has done would become public knowledge, and this film is decidedly set in a fairly private world. The punishment Pete has selected is not simply punitive, it is instructive and whether the credit belongs to the director or to writer Guillermo Arriaga ("Amores perros") it must be said this movie ends at the perfect moment on the perfect line.
There are other characters, most notably January Jones as Lou Ann Norton, Melissa Leo as Rachel, and Levon Helm as the Old Man with the Radio, but they are relatively insignificant given what is happening with Jones and Pepper. Flashbacks are used to show both Pete's friendship with Melquiades and to let us know exactly how he ended up getting killed. Neither Pete nor Norton are privy to the other halves of the story, but then their purpose is primarily to allow us to know how each man came to be in this peculiar situation. This is not a story about revenge, it is a character study and an object lesson. What makes it powerful is the elegance of its simplicity, but the subject matter and the deterioration of the title character's body will not appeal to everyone's sensibilities.